September 28, 1781: The Beginning of the End of the American Revolution


Surrender of Cornwallis to George Washington by John Turnbull

From American Heritage by Christine Gibson:

For six years, the specter of defeat had dogged Gen. George Washington’s every thought. As advantage after advantage slipped away, the American coffers dried up, and the most promising general betrayed the Revolution, it looked more and more like Washington and his motley army would lose their fight for independence. But in September 1781, on a hilltop he had feared he might never see again, Washington could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Three weeks earlier, he had begun a march south from the New York area, where he and his soldiers had spent most of the war. Now, for the first time since being appointed commander-in-chief in 1775, he visited his home at Mt. Vernon. Things were finally looking up for his army, too, although he couldn’t have guessed how much. On September 28, 1781, 225 years ago today, he and his allies would reach Yorktown, Virginia. There he would score his first—and last—major offensive victory. The siege at Yorktown would win the American Revolution.

America’s revolutionary fervor had atrophied in the long years since 1776. The Continental army was broke. Enlistments had dwindled to nothing, and the goodwill of citizens had long since been spent. Americans were tired of this endless war. Unless Washington delivered some huge victory or advantage somewhere—anywhere—the Revolution would surely decay. But without command of the sea, he couldn’t do much. An enemy like the British, who could resupply, reinforce, or escape anywhere along the coast, was almost impossible to defeat. France, the Patriots’ ally since 1778, certainly had the naval might to take control of American waters, but French ships always seemed to be busy elsewhere. “If France delays timely aid now it will avail us nothing if she attempts it hereafter,” Washington wrote in the spring of 1781. “We are at the end of our tether and now or never our deliverance must come.”

Read the rest of the article at American Heritage

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